On April 9, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in northern Virginia. After four years, the bloodiest conflict in American history had finally come to a close.
In Asheville, a mountain holding located some 300 miles south, the end of the Civil War marked the beginning of a spiritual journey.
Recognizing the need to provide emancipated slaves with a place of worship, several prominent members of Trinity Episcopal Church—including former slaveowners and Confederate officers Thomas Patton and James Martin—rallied to establish Asheville’s first Black congregation: The Freedmen’s Church.
Amid rampant political, economic and social unrest in Asheville and the South at large, the fellowship thrived. As Patton writes in his 1897 memoir, “each Sunday afternoon a crowd of Colored people were collected…how heartily the learners sang the chants….”
In 1870, the congregation developed the city’s first Black school, offering classes in religion and reading. Two years later, it was relocated from Trinity Episcopal Church to a 5-acre plot on Dundee Street.
Episcopal clergyman and educator Jarvis Buxton described the two-story structure thusly: “There is…a free Parochial School for colored children, in the basement of a building, finished at a cost of $1,350, obtained from at home and abroad. The upper room is a chapel for colored people, in which I hold service for them once during the week.”
In 1894, the church’s name was changed to St. Matthias Episcopal Church. Formerly enslaved brickmason James Vester Miller also began constructing the present-day chapel. According to Andrea Clark, Miller’s granddaughter, the Gothic Revival-style edifice was the very first church he built.
Today, the chapel serves as a cultural cornerstone of the East End/Valley Street neighborhood. Last year, it saw 1,000 visitors, most associated with Hood Huggers International’s walking and driving tours highlighting Asheville’s Black history. About 100, however, were exploring the James Vester Miller Historic Walking Trail, a self-guided tour of buildings crafted by the master builder.
Church leaders expect these numbers to jump as the River Front Development Group finalizes work on the Black Cultural Heritage Trail. They also anticipate fellowship to expand. “The church is up to an average of 45 attendees at Sunday services,” says Laura McPherson, a member of the vestry.
Despite this growing interest, the legacy of St. Matthias is at risk. The chapel—which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979—is threatened by “moisture intrusion,” McPherson says. To save the chapel and parish house from ruin, a comprehensive drainage and grading project is needed.
Fortunately, the church received $20,000 from The Episcopal Foundation of WNC earlier this summer. The grant will cover the cost of site development and landscape plans that will inform future renovations.
St. Matthias has contracted with Asheville-based landscape architecture firm Sitework Studios. The project should be completed next year.
As McPherson notes, the “purpose of the grant is to support and grow St. Matthias as both an active church and an important heritage site in the greater community through…the next century.”
St. Matthias Episcopal Church is located at 1 Dundee Street, Asheville. To learn more, visit StMatthiasEpiscopal.com. Thanks to funding from a Tipping Point Grant, the church will be on view once a month as part of the James Vester Miller Historic Walking Trail. For dates, visit JamesVesterMiller.com.